OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee on June 30 vetoed legislation that would have required the Washington State Department of Ecology to report where it is in the process of issuing a new permit to spray burrowing shrimp, and “to identify the steps it will take to ensure a viable and economically feasible alternative if the pesticide use is not permitted.”
Collectively known as burrowing shrimp, Willapa Bay harbors two native species — ghost shrimp and blue mud shrimp. They churn the bay’s bottom, causing oysters to suffocate. Although they’ve been expanding their range for decades, the shrimp have been especially prolific in recent years. They aren’t edible by humans but were once held in check by abundant chum salmon, white sturgeon and other predators. In contrast, the annual oyster harvest being curtailed by the shrimp generates tens of millions of dollars for the Pacific County economy.
In 2015, oyster and clam growers in Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor planned to spray up to 2,000 acres of tidelands with imidacloprid, a neonicotinoid pesticide, to control the shrimp. Ecology issued a permit April 16, 2015, but Puget Sound-based Taylor Shellfish Farms said May 1 it would not spray its Willapa Bay beds following a negative reaction to spraying, largely generated by a Seattle Times columnist.
Two days later, the Willapa-Grays Harbor Oyster Growers Association told DOE it was suspending the permit. Later, growers learned DOE considered the action to be an outright surrender and cancellation of the permit, meaning the process had to start from scratch in 2016. There was an expectation by oyster growers that a new permit to spray 500 acres would be issued this year. However, the process continues to drag on — prompting the legislative action that Inslee vetoed.
Governor backs DOE’s position
In his veto message to legislators, Inslee conceded, “Burrowing shrimp is a serious problem for the shellfish industry in Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor.” However, he said, the legislation “inappropriately presumes the outcome of the environmental review and permitting process.”
The governor attempted to partially address legislative concerns. “While I am vetoing this subsection, I am directing the Department of Ecology to complete the environmental review process as soon as possible and to keep the Legislature informed of its progress,” he wrote.
State Rep. Brian Blake, D-Aberdeen, on July 7 said the veto did not come as a surprise, based on discussions he had with Ecology Director Maia Bellon. Not only were Ecology personnel vocally opposed to the legislation, Blake said he is “not getting good vibes at all” about the agency ultimately approving a new spray permit.
“My gut tells me she’s going to find a way not to issue the permit,” Blake said of Bellon, with whom he otherwise has an amicable working relationship. He said political pressures surrounding use of a pesticide in an aquatic setting may be root cause of agency reluctance.
Rep. Jim Walsh, R-Aberdeen, who sponsored the burrowing shrimp provision the governor vetoed, was not immediately available for comment in time for this story.
Trading one pesticide for another
Imidacloprid is set to replace carbaryl, an older insecticide commonly used in flea collars for pets. Carbaryl’s use in the bay resulted in lawsuits and increasing regulations, and the Willapa Bay and Grays Harbor shellfish industry agreed more than a decade ago to phase it out. Going back to it is not an option.
The alternative oyster growers eventually proposed is Imidacloprid. It is widely used on land crops, including Washington hops. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and Washington State Department of Agriculture approved using it specifically in the bay and harbor, even though it is controversial in other settings, being sometimes blamed for honeybee die-offs.
Shellfish growers were to apply 1/16th as much Imidacloprid per acre as they did carbaryl, which was used between 1963 and 2013. Imidacloprid was to be applied at a low level — one 8-ounce cup per acre — on tidal flats where bees aren’t present. The new permit being sought by oyster growers would be for a quarter as much Imidacloprid as had been approved in 2015. Growers and Blake concur that it is a benign chemical.
In case Ecology eventually does agree to the new permit, Blake said he plans legislation next year to provide $400,000 to pay for environmental monitoring to see whether Imidacloprid accumulates in bay sediments or spreads in harmful ways outside the areas where it is applied. Monitoring would occur in years one, three and five following spraying.
Marilyn Sheldon of Northern Oyster Co. said Tuesday “We’re seeing record numbers” of burrowing shrimp encroaching on their beds. The Nahcotta-based firm reduced its plantings of new oyster stock by 20 percent last year in response to less tideland acreage being available for shellfish rearing and fattening, she said. This year, they will at best continue with that planting level but could have to reduce more, she said.
Sheldon said she and other growers see Inslee’s statement agreeing that the shrimp are a serious issue as a positive indication that he’s willing to engage in finding a solution.